On August 4th 2011, 29-year old Mark Duggan was shot and killed by the police in Tottenham, North London. In the days after the police killing, peaceful demonstrations against the police’s lacking response to the case was followed by increased protests, with riots spreading to other parts of the country. Between the fourth and 11th of August, arson, plundering and window smashing occurred in some of London’s poorest areas including Lewisham, Tottenham Hale, Tower Hamlets, and in cities outside London such as Liverpool, Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds, Leicester and Coventry. As the riots spread, the police instigated a counteroffensive which, among other measures, resulted in mass arrests and stricter sentencing. An analysis by The Guardian (18th August 2011) revealed that around 1,000 convictions related to the riots were given 25 percent longer prison terms than other, similar offences. The strict sentencing displayed a common view of riots per se – not only among the conservative right wing, but also amid the majority of an organised left segment – riots are most often equated with plundering, vandalism and violence.
Strike versus riots. One of the problems as discussed by Joshua Clover in the book Riot. Strike. Riot – The New Era of Uprisings, is that rioting as a collective form of reaction lacks an adequate crisis theory. It is only positioned as a direct opposite to strikes. Where the reactions of the labour movement traditionally demonstrate a clear political organisation demanding better wage conditions and workers’ rights, the rioters’ call for social and political change seems devoid of this. Clover claims that when riots contrast with strike actions, they are reduced to an apolitical disorder where no one seems to know what they want anymore. Despite this, riots are advancing and labour movement strikes retreating. The 2011 riots which began in Tottenham, London, is only one collective action in a series of riots which now can be said to trace its roots back to Watts, Newark, Detroit. There is a line going from Tiananmen Square in 1989, to our own time with Säo Paolo, Gezi Park and San Lazaro. The list is extensive: Clover gives examples of the proto-revolutionary riots in the Tahrir Square, as well as Clichysous-Bois, Oakland, Ferguson and Baltimore. He also describes student occupations such as the one in the Tory headquarters on London’s Millbank in 2010. On the whole, writes Clover, the list of modern day riots goes on and on.
It is futile to operate with a too narrow understanding of the term proletariat.
A given historical context. Clover prepares a suitable riots crisis theory based on a historical-materialistic method integrated with an understanding of the practice of the struggles. He is critical of socialist theories with program texts and detailed instructions on how to fight the State and Capital – these are based on the vague premise that this proved successful once upon a time. For the same reason, the recruitment problems of unions and leftist organisations are not explained with a general lack of resolve or a liberated labour conscience. According to Clover, the relationship between riots and strikes must be viewed in a given historical-material context for each individual reaction form. Seen within the historical periods, both practices are related to Market and Capital: the pre-modern riot was the precursor to capitalism’s industrial revolution which founded the strike and workers union. The practice of rioting relate to market, price and distribution, whilst the strike is closely linked to salary struggles and capitalist productions. In the 1700s, with food shortages and price inflation, a shipping blockade stopped the export of necessary subsistence means from the local markets. In the transition from feudal to capitalist society, collective values become subordinate to an imperative profit. The tenants of the feudal society are driven into a proletariat missing out on land ownership and dependent on waged work for survival. No job meant the law of poverty. But, as Clover mentions, zero salary is also a salary in that it works as an important supplement to keep alive the reserve labour army.
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